On the Singular Pleasures of the Hangout Movie

Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film Licorice Pizza may be the apotheosis of the Hangout Film, which is somewhat ironic, given that hangout films generally aren’t working towards a grand culmination. They’re not trying to up the ante in terms of action set-pieces, jump scares or even emotional catharsis—although any individual film that fits within that (appropriately) loosely defined category may include any or all of those. The charm of hangout films—whether they are designed as such or have been retroactively tagged with the designation—comes from, well, simply hanging out in their worlds.

When we think of hangout films, a few big names and titles come to mind. For the former, we have, first and foremost, Richard Linklater, whose philosophically-inclined ensemble comedies and romances—Slacker, Suburbia, the Before Trilogy, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life and Everybody Wants Some!! (you could also include Boyhood and A Scanner Darkly to the list as well, although those both have more of overt dramatic arcs)—have come to define his oeuvre far more than the more conventionally structured films he’s made, even though he’s made as many of the latter as he has the former.

There’s Paul Thomas Anderson himself, whose earlier efforts Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, indebted as they clearly are to the work of ‘70s masters Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph—all of whose work, along with many of their peers from the 1970s, could be considered examples of the hangout film (with Altman’s 1974 gambling comedy California Split standing out as one of the all-time great examples), even if their tone is generally more tense or downbeat than most obvious examples—somewhat fit the bill. But his  more recent work, specifically his shaggy, stoner detective mystery Inherent Vice and the aforementioned Licorice Pizza, definitely do.

And then there’s Quentin Tarantino. Although his movies are overflowing with big moments (particularly big moments of violence) and intricate plotting, he spends so much time hanging out with characters hanging out, following their  digressions about movies, music, literature, food, etc, that they absolutely fit the bill, in particular Jackie Brown, Death Proof, The Hateful Eight and, most of all, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

If Richard Linklater is most synonymous with the general idea of the hangout film, Tarantino is most synonymous with the specific concept. This is only right, given that it was him who coined the term in the first place, using it to describe one of his favorite and most oft-cited films, Howard Hawks’ western classic Rio Bravo (1959):

“There are certain movies that you hang out with the characters so much that they actually become your friends. And that’s a really rare quality to have in a film…and those movies are usually quite long, because it actually takes that long of a time to get past a movie character where you actually feel that you know the person and you like them…when it’s over, they’re your friends.”

Since entering the lexicon via Tarantino, the categorization has been retroactively applied to any number of films, both classic and contemporary, that contain enough of a laid-back vibe and big blocks of time dedicated to observing characters simply chilling out. Examples span pretty much all genres—everything from slashers (Friday the 13th), to mob dramas (The Irishman), to prestige pics (Cry Macho).(The fad of ‘60s beach party movies are probably the earliest examples of movies that intentionally used the idea of a hangout vibe as a selling point.) 

But for all of its versatility, there are a handful of subgenres to which it most easily fits: the road movie (from Smokey and the Bandit to Strangers in Paradise to Dumb & Dumber), the reunion movie (Return of the Secaucus Seven, The Big Chill, Diner), the stoner comedy (the Cheech and Chong movies, Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse, Grandma’s Boy, the Friday movies and, most notably, The Big Lebowski), and the coming-of-age movie, specifically those that take place in high school and college (American Graffiti, Foxes, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, Kicking and Screaming, Metropolitan, Superbad). 

These all lend themselves to the spirit of hangout films for obvious reasons: the picaresque narratives inherent to the road movie gives its characters plenty of excuses for fun, surprising and idiosyncratic detours; the reunion movie is all about watching character’s reconnect through the actual act of coming together and bouncing off each other; the stoner comedy—along with its darker-tinted cousin, the drunk comedy (or tragicomedy) which includes more morose versions of the hangout movie such as Husbands, Barfly, Trees Lounge and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets—is built around an act that necessitates long hang sessions; and the coming-of-age story simply recognizes and reflects the universal reality of teens and young adults, whose free time can really only be filled with hanging out.

Many of these examples crossover with one another: reunion movies are often also coming-of-age stories, while high school/college-set coming-of-age stories generally involve a good bit of doping and boozing. (The basic template of the road movie can pretty much be fitted unto any and all of these). 

But if there’s one thing that unites a large percentage of hangout films, it’s a sense of overwhelming nostalgia. It’s evident in many of the earlier examples from the movie brat generation—George Lucas’s light but fatalistic American Graffiti uses nostalgia as its canvas, while Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (as well as John Sayles’s far superior The Return of the Secaucus 7) is centered around characters squaring their own nostalgia with their current day reality. The same is true of the films that followed in their footsteps: Dazed and Confused, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Licorice Pizza are built upon their makers’ (by no means uncomplicated) nostalgia for the days of their youth (with many of the people, places and events that occur in them based on real life) as well as for those movies themselves*; others  feature characters whose personalities or actions are defined by their personal nostalgia, such as The Big Lebowski’s The Dude and Walter, still living the late ‘60s-early ‘70s a quarter century on, Inherent Vice’s Doc Sportello, pining for a generational innocence only a couple of years after its been lost, or The Irishman’s aged mobsters who try—and fail—to romanticize the moral morass that was their so-called glory days.

It’s no coincidence that all of these movies use jukebox soundtracks, as the nostalgia at their core is conveyed as much, if not more so, by the music of their eras as their set decoration. It’s also no coincidence that so many of them either take place in or are preoccupied by the post-war decades, specifically the ‘60s and ‘70s, since they’re directed by either baby boomers or Gen-Xers. No doubt there are more recent examples of hangout films helmed by Millennials (I suppose the mumblecore movement produced a number of titles that could be regarded as hangout movies, even if no one seems keen to revisit them, thus negating a prime aspect of the genre), just as there are sure to be ones made by members of Gen-Z. But for all that nostalgia is a driving force of our current cinema landscape, it’s nostalgia not for time and place, but for products, IP, and brand names.

That, plus the focus on mythology and plot, to say nothing of expensive spectacle, have made the hangout film rarer than they were before. But thankfully, the generation of filmmakers who are aging into the old guard—Linklater, Tarantino and PTA—seem more and more interested in going the opposite route, preferring instead to simply hang out.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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